2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate tells the strange and luscious story of the De la Garza family in Mexico at the turn of the century. Tita, forbidden to marry by the family matriarch and all but relegated to the kitchen, finds she is able to express her true self through cooking. When family and guests eat Tita’s food, they are overcome with overwhelming disgust, lust, anger, and sadness. Each chapter features a specific dish, and relates both Tita’s personal journey into a modern Mexican woman, but also the story of Mexico as it undergoes a revolution on the outskirts of Tita’s life. (Read my First Look here)

I’ll admit that the first four times I tried to find this book at my library, I thought they didn’t carry it. I thought they only carried a sort of study guide for book clubs, with monthly recipes. Turns out, that’s the book. Don’t be fooled like I was.

Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help…Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul…If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.

Esquivel does a lovely job of throwing the reader directly into the kitchen to hear these tales. The narration for each chapter truly feels like a person relaying a recipe for you, and getting sidetracked on family tall-tales. Each chapter is about food, but also love, and also womanhood, and also revolution. The writing is sensual in every meaning of the word. There are scenes that are embarrassing and gross, and others erotic and heartbreaking. There is magical realism here, and unlike another MR behemoth (100 Years of Solitude) this magic feels much more human and maybe feminine. There is magic in Tita’s cooking, but also in all food, in sex, in stories, and in relationships.

I always want more magic in my magical realism. However, it wouldn’t make sense for the narrator of this tale to fawn over the magical details. Everything here comes through a sort of distanced retelling of old family stories; questioning the details is not only rude, but detrimental to the point of the retelling. The food and emotions are an exception, but overall this story is not as richly textured as others in the genre; settings and characters were both slightly shallow and one-dimensional. In these ways, LWfC feels more like a tall-tale than magical realism, but either way I enjoyed it.

This is a quick and fun read, with a little bit of heartbreak, lots of good food, and some sexy and funny stuff thrown in. Great book for all those aspiring kitchen witches out there. If you want to try out Magical Realism but don’t quite have the gumption to try 100 Years of Solitude right away, this is a great introduction to the genre.

Scent Notes: wet masa, sweat, crushed rose petals

3.5

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

When the Moon was Ours

Rumors swirl about odd best friends, Miel and Sam. Sam paints moons to hang in the trees around town and mostly keeps to himself. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrists, and no one knows where she came from before she tumbled out of the town’s water-tower. But as odd as Miel and Sam are, even stranger are the Bonner girls, four beautiful, redheaded sisters who enchant the town and always get what they want. One of the Bonner sisters decides she wants the roses from Miel’s wrists, and the sisters are willing to do anything, and betray everyone, to get them. Read my First Look here. 

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“…both he and she were creek beds, quiet when they were full and quiet when they were dry. But when they were half-full, wearing a coat of shallow water, the current bumped over the rocks and valleys in the creek beds, wearing down the earth. Giving someone else a little of who they were hurt more than giving up none or all of it.”

When the Moon was Ours is a tender exploration of teenage identity and love, with sensual prose and stunning heart. This is the most evocative young adult novel I’ve ever read, and McLemore exhibits precise control over ethereal elements of magical realism,  sensitive portrayal of latinx, Pakistani, and trans characters*, and a very grounded-to-life plot that will remind any reader of being a teenager with secrets to hide. This character-driven romance is simply gorgeous.

“She had left the stars on her skin the whole day, while they let the sun heat their backs. When they ran, her perspiration made the foil shine damp, and it wore the edges of the adhesive, but the little stars stayed. And that night he had lifted each one off her, slowly, so they didn’t pull at her skin… He had mapped her body like a new sky.”

redhead-women-portrait-photography-maja-topcagic-1_zpsbj8kctvfMany things reveal slowly in this story – the backstories of many of the main characters, the secrets held dearly by Sam and Miel, the reason for the Bonner sister’s hostility- each unfurling in their own time, much like the flowers that Miel grows from a wound in her wrist. This book is rich with legends, cultural folklore, family dynamics, and small-town magics.

Unlike many teen romances, this book is not about the tension of ‘will they won’t they’, and there is no flimsy misunderstanding designed to give our characters something to overcome. This book uses love in the best way possible, to explore the strength and resilience of human relationships and the willingness to sacrifice for the people we love.

The two main characters’s love moves from friendship to something more in a slow burn, and this book handles the complexity and earnestness of teen love and sexuality with the respect that teens rarely get but truly deserve. That one character is trans is important, but not treated as a barrier to their relationship or a curiosity to exploit. It was very important to see erotic and meaningful sex on the page for these two characters, and not an ounce of  shaming of teens exploring their sexuality in a consenting and loving way.

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You should read this book. It is threaded with magic and heart, in plot and character and prose. McLemore gives a truly inspiring romance that I’d happily see more relationships modeled after. It reaffirmed my belief that YA can be literary and groundbreaking, and it made my heart ache in the best way.

Scent Notes: Paint thinner in the night air, blood-damp roses, and brown sugar.

*McLemore’s partner is trans, and McLemore is Latina. Her author’s note at the back of this book is, like everything else, beautiful.

5